US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has said China’s development and testing of a hypersonic weapon had heightened tensions in the Indo-Pacific region and underlined why China was the biggest challenge facing the US military.
“We know that China conducted a test with a hypersonic weapon on July 27,” Austin said in his first confirmation of the test first reported by the Financial Times.
“We will continue to maintain the capabilities to defend and deter a range of potential threats from the PRC to ourselves and our allies,” he added during a visit to Seoul.
China flew a hypersonic glider — an agile spacecraft that travels at more than five times the speed of sound — on an orbital missile system, demonstrating its ability to hit any part of the US with nuclear weapons. The truck launched a missile as it flew over the South China Sea, revealing an ability that baffled the Pentagon for the difficulties of firing a projectile while flying at such speed.
Austin spoke alongside Suh Wook, his South Korean counterpart, after annual talks on the military alliance between the countries. The talks included General Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff.
In a joint statement, Austin and Suk acknowledged the “importance of preserving peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait”. That language bolstered a statement by President Moon Jae-in and President Joe Biden in May, which reflected growing concerns in the region about China’s increasingly assertive military activity around Taiwan.
Shinzo Abe, Japan’s aggressive former prime minister, suggested on Wednesday that Tokyo would back the US in a conflict with China over Taiwan if Beijing invaded the country. China considers Taiwan part of its sovereign territory.
China’s foreign ministry on Thursday called on the Japanese ambassador to complain, saying Abe had offered “brutal support” to pro-independence forces in Taiwan.
Xi Jinping, the president of China, told Biden last month that anyone who supported the independence forces in Taiwan would “play with fire”.
South Korea’s defense minister declined to say whether the country, an American defense ally, would help defend Taiwan in a conflict with China.
US and South Korean officials also discussed North Korea and agreed to begin updating their plan for a possible military clash. Austin said the allies affirmed their view that Pyongyang “continued to advance its missile and weapons programs, which are increasingly destabilizing to regional security.”
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un outlined his nuclear ambitions in January, including tactical weapons, submarine long-range weapons and hypersonic weapons. North Korea has since tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile and a train-launched ballistic missile. In September, it claimed to have tested a new hypersonic missile that it suggested could deliver a warhead over long distances.
Milley and Austin also held talks about South Korea’s long-term goal of commanding joint forces in the peninsula. The US has approximately 18,500 troops stationed in South Korea.
Seoul has also urged Washington to support an effort to end the Korean War, which ended with a ceasefire in 1953. Moon’s progressive government, whose successor will be elected in March, wants to gain diplomatic support for an end-of-war declaration.
The US has accepted the idea but has not offered its full support because it does not see the benefits it would bring, especially as it struggles to get North Korea to hold talks over its nuclear program.